Three Ways to Shoot a Quick, Last-Minute Portrait







As the only pro photographer in my neighborhood, I sometimes get asked to shoot a quick photo of an event or a friend at the very last minute. My studio is only 15 minutes away, but I do most of my file processing, printing, and gear prep in my home office. So I keep a small set of portable gear at the ready for photographing whatever pops up. This week, one of my favorite neighbors, Anna (whom I affectionately call Anna Banana) was to receive an award at school and hated her school picture that was to go onto the plaque. So, I came to the rescue with an impromptu portrait session in my living room on a Tuesday evening. Yes, even big-time pro photographers shoot portraits in their living rooms sometimes!

Let's start out with what I would not do.

I could easily just pop up a simple background, toss a flash into the hot shoe of my D700 and snap off a quick frame or two and be done with it, but I want to make a better image for such a terrific kid whom I have watched grow up.

Anna on black back with direct flash

This is OK, just a direct flash, on-camera shot, but we could easily transform this rather harsh light into some softer, more pleasing light by using any of the hundreds of snap-on / hook and loop on-flash modifiers, but I tend to go another route for shots like this.

The Quick and Smooth Light of Bouncing Flash

Those of you who've read my smArticles on and have seen the videos on the website, know that I like the Metz flashes with the two heads for shots like this, and for a good portion of my commercial event coverage assignments. Here's a Metz 58AF1 (my personal favorite in the Metz lineup BTW) with the primary flash head pointed up toward the vaulted ceiling in my living room.

A setup showing the flash up at the ceiling for bounce

And the second head, called a winklite, pointed directly at Anna for a little sparkly fill light. I have the flash set to that only 5% of the flash power pops out of the winklite and 95% of the flash power is launched out of the primary head for a flood of soft light combined with just a touch of direct light to create some pretty nice lighting for this shot. I'll set my camera to MANUAL exposure mode at ISO 400, with the shutter at 1/60th second and aperture at f 5.6; I'll set the flash into TTL mode and select custom white balance. I am a JPEG shooter so I can print directly from the file out of the camera. But I am still not satisfied because the light is "on-camera" and has no dimension, no depth to highlight her adorable face. Let me show you a few tips to make this good shot… great in minutes!

The Next Step Up: Off-Camera Light

The magic of lighting dimension, when it comes to portraits, happens when the light gets moved off the camera to gracefully sculpt the features of the face from the side. One of my favorite tools for quickie portraits is the pop-up softbox made for shoe mounted flashes from Lastolite called the EZBOX hotshoe. It comes in a few different sizes but I prefer the biggest one (XX size). To use it, simply unfold it from the carrying bag, slide your shoe mounted flash into its bracket, then mount it to a light stand and connect it to your camera.

Flash mounted on EZbox and light stand

You can certainly use a PC sync cable for this since it's not going to be far away from you, but personally speaking, I hate sync cables and never use them. For me and my clumsy feet, it's a recipe for trip-and-knock-over disaster. I use wireless triggers for absolutely everything. The Elinchrom Skyport is my system of choice these days because it's small, powerful, lightweight, and inexpensive too! So I will sync the flash with a Skyport transmitter in the camera's hot shoe, and a Skyport universal remote receiver connected to the flash. By the way, you will need an adapter to connect any wireless trigger to the shoe flash on the lightstand. Paramount makes a decent one, but I prefer this Metz adapter that also has a white light slave trigger built into it that works really well. Now I still have the camera in MANUAL exposure mode at ISO 400, same shutter, aperture and white balance settings, but have the Metz flash in MANUAL exposure mode firing at ¼ power with both flash heads pointing into the EZbox hotshoe. With the EZbox placed off to the left, slightly above my subject's eyeline into the camera, my flashmeter reads a perfect f/5.6 and gives me some very nice light.


Adding a simple white fill card in from the right side opens up those shadow areas to complete the lighting but it does scoop up quite a bit of light; so a meter reading off of my little Gossen DigiProF tells me we've gained 1/3 stop from adding the fill. So we will drop down the power of the flash by 1/3 stop (which reads "1/4-" on it's control panel) and return the total lighting back to my f 5.6 exposure setting. Now this is much better!

Ezbox with fill card

Let's Go From Good to GREAT!

By moving up to even the budget-priced studio type strobes we can get some gorgeous light in no time. In my client assignments, I use Elinchrom strobes. I check them into the airlines as baggage and travel the country with them-it's no secret that I am a tough on my gear. Most non-pro photographers certainly don't need the high-end strobes. For beginners, the Elinchrom D-lites are a smart choice. However, if you plan to do location work or if you ever want to use some of the cool Elinchrom pro soft boxes like the Octa or Quadra (like you see me use in my smArticles and videos,) take a look at the Elinchrom BX400's. I've used these for years on studio and location shoots; and in fact I loaded up my 10 x 20 foot overhead light bank with 6 of these set to full power and shot everything from refrigerators to long chrome plated custom choppers. You can get a 2-light BX kit with stands, umbrellas and more from B&H and completely knock out a professional-looking shot of little Anna just like this.

Start with the main light ($525.00) and adjust the power to provide a meter reading of f/4.0.5 measured under the subject's chin (with the dome of the meter pointed into the LENS not the light). Next, let's put up a fill light above and behind the camera and use only a little of the flash power to boost the meter reading of both the main flash AND the fill flash to meter at f/5.6. The Elinchrom BX's will adjust digitally up or down in sweet 1/10th stop increments from the control panel making them a dream for fine-tuning your lighting and exposure. Feel confident in adjusting the BX'es so your meter reads exactly at f/5.6 and zero tenths. It's easier than you think. I'll use the same Skyport universal receiver to trigger the BX that is placed as the main light, then activate the built-in white light slave trigger on the second BX fill light. The camera will trigger the Skyport in it's hot shoe, send a trigger signal to the Skyport receiver on the main light. When that strobe fires, the light from it will instantly fire the fill light using the built-in slave. If you are outside, or if you have the fill light next to a really bright window, you may need to add a second Skyport receiver to your fill light to guarantee 100% triggering. How's this for a sweet shot?

Anna with two lights

I love it.

Next, I'll take my shoe flash, mount it onto a light stand, and place it right above the background pointing at the back of Anna's head, set in MANUAL exposure mode at 1/16th power. Remember I mentioned I like that Metz shoe flash adapter? Here's why! It has a white light slave built into it so it will fire the Metz flash as soon as the main BX400 fires giving me a little bit of hairlight and a photo I can be proud of

Final image (even though it was shot in my living room inside of 40 minutes)!

At B&H we offer a variety of monolights and monolight kits other than those mentioned above to fit the budgetary needs of serious amateurs and pros alike.

The Bowens Esprit Gemini Two Head, 1000 Watt/Second total AC/DC Monolight Kit can be used in the studio powered by 110-120V. This ready-to-go lighting kit contains 2 heads (with 250w modeling lamps), a 24 x 24" silver-lined softbox, 2 umbrellas, 2 compact light stands, a sync cord, and a padded ‘wheelie' bag.

When shooting out in the boonies, you can plug into the optional Travel Pak Battery System, which can power dual monolights simultaneously with a combined output range of up to 1500 w/s. The Travel Pak Battery System can produce up to 200 full-power flashes, powers down to as little as 1/32-power, and recycles in as little as 4.5-seconds.

When shooting in nasty environments, you can stow the battery pack in the included weather-resistant carrying bag, which will reportedly keep you safe in up to 3 inches of water.

Impact's VSD400 Two Light Monolight Kit contains a set of 400 w/s monolights that enable you to adjust the light output through a 4-stop range (in 1/10th stop increments), a digital control board, and 100w modeling lamps for previewing your final results. Also included in this attractively-priced lighting kit are two 24 x 32" softboxes, two 10-foot, 4-section, air-cushioned light stands, and a mini-to-PC sync cord.

Lastly, the Impact Three Monolight Portrait Boom Kit is an attractively priced portable lighting system that features two 400 w/s monolights, one 100 w/s monolight, black, 10-foot cushioned lightstands, a 13-foot Multiboom lightstand with 13-inch reflector, white translucent umbrellas, a 16-channel radio-slave transmitter and receiver, and a tough travel/storage bag.

Watch our video tutorials on lighting featuring the IMPACT EX100A, the IMPACT VC-500, the IMPACT VA903, and the Impact Studio Acc.


1 Comment

Interesting article, however where the photos should be are empty boxes. This is on a MBP using Chrome, FireFox, and Safari. Also, this is happening in numerous other articles as well.